Saving bluefin tuna, a thousand at a time
Sunday 22 July, 2012, 21:07, opinion by
When our dive team freed an estimated 1,000 bluefin tuna from sea cages off the Croatian coast last week, we aimed to free as many animals as possible and ensure our crew members would be able to safely leave the area. We are pleased to say that the outcome of the action has exceeded our hopes and that in the last couple of weeks our efforts have managed to peak the interests of many people around the world, who are now taking note of the lucrative trade in the endangered bluefin and getting behind our call to end the wholesale slaughter of this magnificent species.
Juvenile bluefin tuna in the Adriatic Sea
photo © by Umami
When our crew members decided to jump into action, it was as a result of witnessing the slaughter of bluefin tuna first hand. We had been working on the ground in Croatia for a number of weeks already, investigating the country's lucrative tuna farming industry and it was when some of us saw some large bluefin tuna being hauled out of their pens and killed, that it was time to intervene.
Our team got out in the water, in the middle of the night, in an area with at times strong currents and cut the nets of two sea pens that were located about a mile off shore. The cages are heavily guarded. As a security post is manned around the clock and watches over them from a vantage point on a nearby hill, boats swoop the area around the pens 24/7. No-one is supposed to get in or out of this area unnoticed. Working in these conditions we had to prioritize the successful release of the fish and the safety of our crew. It would have been great to have had divers on the scene with specialist underwater infra-red camera equipment to document our efforts but this is unfortunately a luxury we cannot (yet) afford.
One of our divers cut through the netting which enclosed the school of bluefin tuna within and came across a small young dead fish which was entangled in the mesh of the net. Probably one of the smallest individuals in the cage, this bluefin was less than 50cm in length and had attempted to push its way through the net towards freedom. It had gotten stuck and likely suffered a long and painful death in its desire for freedom. After more than three-quarters of the net's length was cut open, with security boats hovering overhead, hundreds of bluefin tuna swerved out of their enclosure and back into the open sea. Seeing a school of this size, of one of the largest and fastest fish on earth, make a dash for the wilderness is a sight that makes all our efforts worth it. Regardless of the public's response, we knew we had achieved to give back freedom to these endangered animals.
The days after the action the head of operations at the Ugljan tuna farm, Mira Mirkovic, kept silent. The police started their investigation but had little evidence to go on other than our media release claiming responsibility. While media in different countries around the world started reporting on the news, Croatian media kept silent. As much as we had spoken with Croatian media, no article or news item appeared anywhere in the country's press. A few days later however, one of the national news channels, Nova TV, got a quote from the clearly disgruntled Mr. Mirkovic: 'we do not want to publicly come forward for fear that too much importance is attributed to this incident'. He later went on to declare to other media that 'no fish were freed' while later even making out as though the fish did get out but that they had returned back to the cages at their own free will as they are used to being fed.
This latest claim is to put it mildly, ridiculous. Bluefin tuna are highly-migratory, opportunistic hunters that travel thousands of miles in a matter of weeks and eat pretty much whatever they come across. By now some of the released fish will be in other parts of the Mediterranean, while some will have hopefully made it in time to join the annual migration run towards the Atlantic Ocean where the animals will feed over winter. The fish we released from the cages were all wild-caught, as we estimate only a few weeks before. Tuna of different ages and sizes were found together, indicating they were all caught while traveling in the same school.
It is clear that the tuna company has an interest in discrediting our actions and pretending like nothing worthwhile has happened. This is a tried-and-tested method in Croatia as we later learned. We spoke with activists from different organisations that told us this is a regular occurrence, where police and media agree on what to cover and what not and how much attention should be given to the actions of specific groups and organisations.
The Croatian Fisheries Ministry also joined in the debate last week by claiming that bluefin tuna are not endangered and that taking this form of action to save these fish is 'bordering on madness'. This makes us wonder whether the Croatian delegates to ICCAT, CITES or the EU Fisheries Commission have been paying any attention at all in the last 10 years to the overwhelming evidence that has been presented to these international institutions, showing the bluefin tuna to be a species literally on the brink of extinction.
Something it might be worth explaining, is that although the places where these tuna are caged, are referred to as tuna farms, they are nothing like traditional fish farms. The bluefin tuna kept at these 'farms' are caught in the wild and kept so they can be fattened up before slaughter. In recent years bluefin tuna meat has become such a scarce 'commodity' that its meat is now sold for astronomical amounts. In January the owner of a Japanese sushi-chain paid a staggering $710,000 US for a single bluefin tuna on a fish market in Tokyo, breaking all previous records. With so much paid for individual animals, fattening them up and increasing their body mass, even by just a few kilos, becomes a profitable enterprise. In that sense it is sad to acknowledge that bluefin tuna has become the modern cash cow for international fishing corporations that are looking to make quick money by fattening up endangered fish like pigs are in factory farms.
Some of the critics claimed that we had chosen the wrong target by visiting the Croatian tuna farm, which is owned by the US corporation Umami 'Sustainable' Seafood. They would be working on the 'solution': that is investing in projects to successfully breed bluefin tuna in captivity. It is argued that this could relieve pressure on the wild populations of bluefin and help a species in trouble. However, in our eyes this couldn't be further from the truth. First of all, Umami 'Sustainable' Seafood is still mostly involved in fattening up wild-caught bluefin, which is reason enough to target their destructive and immoral operations. On top of this, they are operating under an exemption by ICCAT, which legally allows them to catch juvenile (undersized) fish in the Adriatic Sea. This is something so destructive to the bluefin populations that we have chosen to take action in order to put into question this rule, which is ultimately benefiting short-term industry profits over the long-term survival of ecology in this region.
Now let's get back to this so-called 'solution' of breeding bluefin tuna in captivity. This new 'alternative' will see a huge increase in wild caught fish needed to feed the captive tuna as well as create new forms of pollution, threats to wild bluefin stocks and see cruelty to magnificent bluefins on a scale likened to factory farms in the bio-industry. Umami 'Sustainable' Seafood is a company eager to present its 'green' image but at the same time continues to work on the decimation of bluefin tuna just as much as other tuna fishing companies. It is really time that we started prioritizing the survival of one of the greatest fish species on Earth over the few quick dollars to be made of their exploitation, by a few.
The Black Fish is very pleased with the outcome of this action as a starting point for our new campaign in protection of the bluefin tuna. We need your help to realise more actions of this kind and we will be working in the coming months to fundraise for more ambitious operations in defense of these defenseless animals. Join our mission today by supporting our work or see how you can get actively involved. For more information, please see our bluefin tuna campaign website or follow us through Facebook and Twitter.
Selected media coverage: Heroes are putting their lives on the line in the fight to save tuna (UK) | The Truth Behind Bluefin Fish Farming (US) | Broertje van Greenpeace is net wat brutaler (NL) | Nizozemski aktivisti: Tune su ugrožene! Ministarstvo: Nisu! (HR) | Noćna akcija eko-aktivista: Uništili kaveze i oslobodili stotine tuna (HK) | OPPOR-TUNA-TY (UK) | Duikers bevrijden honderden bedreigde blauwvintonijnen (NL)